The Advantages of Fellowship
Solomon, in the previous section, related a story about "a man all alone" who had "neither son nor brother" (Eccl. 4:8). This man was working himself to death, with no heirs to enjoy his wealth. He was greedy and lonely. He himself didn’t even understand why he did what he was doing. He lamented: "For whom am I toiling?" Solomon concluded: "This too is meaningless––a miserable business!" (Eccl. 4:8). That episode about a "man all alone" leads to Solomon’s next subject: "Two are better than one" (Eccl. 4:9). Very early in the history of man, God declared: "It is not good for the man to be alone" (Gen. 2:18). "If it was ‘not good’ in Paradise, much less is it in a wilderness world" [Bridges, 90]. "Ties of union, marriage, friendship, religious communion, are better than the selfish solitariness of the miser" [JFB, 523]. Fellowship would have greatly solved the problem of greed and loneliness related in Solomon’s previous episode. If the man were not all alone, others would have been benefiting from his work, so his toil would not have been merely an exercise of greed. And also, his toil would not have seemed futile, since others would have also enjoyed the fruits of his labor.
Solomon, here in Eccl. 4:9–16, points out other advantages that are a natural result of fellowship. First, "two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work" (vs. 9). There are very few endeavors in life that are performed more efficiently with one hand than with two. In nearly everything we do, we must ask at one time or another, "Hey! Could you give me a hand with this?", or even, "Hey! Can I bounce an idea off you?..." One receives support, encouragement, ideas, an extra hand from a partner.
Then also, "if one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!" (vs. 10). We can take this literally, as two who are journeying upon a road; we can also apply this to our spiritual life: "If one falls down, his friend can help him up." In our spiritual journey, also, "two are better than one". When we are tempted, we can receive from a godly friend the strength to overcome temptation; when we stumble, we can receive the rebuke of a godly friend to get us back on track. When Jesus sent His disciples out, He sent them "two by two" (see Luke 10:1). There is a special power in the prayers of two together, for Jesus promised: "Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them" (Matt. 18:18–19).
There is also in fellowship physical protection from the elements: "Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone?" (vs. 11). I’m reminded in this verse about Jack London’s great Klondike stories. Two who would travel together had more than twice the chance of survival in the frozen north. The two would sleep under the same blanket to keep warm. Also, the presence of two would keep the wolves away at night. In our heated houses, this advantage is largely lost these days. However, the final advantage in fellowship mentioned here does hit home: "Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken" (vs. 12). It is a wicked world out there. There is safety in numbers. Two can walk in safety where one alone would be open to attack. A bond of three together is all the more stronger. So, indeed, we see the wisdom of God in advocating fellowship with one another.
The Meaninglessness of Power and Fame
In this section, Solomon tells a story about a king and his successor. Through this story, Solomon addresses something else that men believe will give them a happy, fulfilling life: power and fame. As when Solomon addressed human wisdom (1:11–18), frivolous pleasure (2:1–3), achievement through great projects (2:4–11), and human toil (2:18–26), Solomon finds that power does not bring happiness and fulfillment, but rather is "meaningless, a chasing after the wind" (vs. 16).
Solomon begins by setting the value of wisdom over the value of age and power: "Better a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer knows how to take warning" (vs. 13). Solomon here states the importance of staying level-headed when put in a position of power. In essence, Solomon is warning us that "Power corrupts". The suggestion is that at one time, the "old" and "foolish" king would take the advice of the wise, but now, after being in power for awhile, he "no longer knows how to take warning". Though not explicit, Solomon implies that calamity will follow the loss of wisdom through the seduction of power. It is better to stay "poor but wise", than to become "an old but foolish king".
Solomon, in this matter, could speak from experience. He himself was a wise young king, who became "old but foolish", and "no longer knew how to take warning." After the dedication of the Temple, God promised Solomon:
Tragically for Solomon, he failed to keep his part of the bargain:
The result of Solomon’s turning from the True and Living God to false gods was calamity for Solomon. The Lord told Solomon:
And so, Solomon became the "old, but foolish king who no longer knows how to take warning." In addition to ignoring the Lord’s warning at the dedication of the Temple, Solomon ignored a warning in the Law of God that specifically spoke to his situation: "King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh’s daughter––Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites. They were from nations about which the Lord had told the Israelites, ‘You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods.’ Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love" (I Kings 11:1–2; see also Ex. 34:16; Deut. 7:3–4).
The seduction of sin led to Solomon’s loss of wisdom. The absolute power that he held as king of Israel gave him the opportunity to practice his sin unhindered. As he practiced his sin unhindered, he no doubt started to believe that he was invincible, that his sin would not lead to dire circumstances because, after all, he was the King of Israel, chosen by God. But sin always has dire consequences; and continued sin will always lead to disaster.
Those who are in a position of power are especially susceptible to falling into sin. Their pride, fed by power, often leads them to ignore warnings against sin. Since they are in positions of power, they can do what they want: sin is accessible to them. Brother, sister, if you are in a position of power, make a special effort to humble yourself before the Lord, and pray fervently that He keep you from temptation, for you are especially susceptible to sin.
Solomon next addresses what happens when the "poor but wise youth" himself becomes a king: "The youth may have come from prison to the kingship, or he may have been born in poverty within his kingdom. I saw that all who lived and walked under the sun followed the youth, the king’s successor. There was no end to all the people who were before them. But those who came later were not pleased with the successor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind" (vss. 14–16). Having concluded that power without wisdom was worthless, Solomon also makes a case that power even with wisdom is "meaningless, a chasing after the wind." The wise youth begins his career from the humblest of beginnings, coming from "prison to the kingship" (reminiscent of Joseph), or from "poverty". At first, "all who lived and walked under the sun followed the youth, the king’s successor" (vs. 15). At first, the youth’s subjects admired his wisdom, especially given his humble beginnings. But in the end, demonstrating that the accolades of the populous are fleeting, "those who came later were not pleased with the successor." In the end, kingly power, even with wisdom, is not enough to keep the allegiance of fickle men. The young wise man went "the way of the old king, not necessarily for his faults, but simply as time and familiarity, and the restlessness of men, make him no longer interesting. He has reached a pinnacle of human glory, only to be stranded there. It is yet another of our human anticlimaxes and ultimately empty achievements" [Kidner, 52]. Today’s hero is tomorrow’s bum. Even kingly power, with wisdom, does not yield lasting happiness and satisfaction. Solomon rightly concludes: "This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind."
In fact, even the King of Kings, the Lord of Glory, did not receive lasting respect from fickle men. When He walked the earth, He too came from poverty to the Kingship. He was respected as a wise Teacher,... for awhile. He treated all He met with love. He healed multitudes. He performed miraculous signs to prove He was worthy of Kingship, sanctioned by the Father. And yet the masses chose to put Him to death. Even then, He defeated death, rose from the dead to sit at the right hand of glory. He forgave His adversaries, even those who put Him to death, and now offers the gift of salvation to all men. And do people honor Him as king? Do they praise Him and thank Him for all He has done for us? Do they seek to live as He teaches they should live? Do they serve Him as Lord?